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Analysis: Downfall of Barry Melrose with Tampa Bay Lightning tied to changes in how game is coached

Barry Melrose has said players revolted in an attempt to bring him down as Lightning coach. A report out of Canada said captain Vinny Lecavalier went to ownership to demand Melrose be fired.

None of that was backed by evidence, so a more plausible scenario is this:

When general manager Brian Lawton took the pulse of the dressing room as he considered Melrose's future during a 5-6-5 start, the players did not come to his rescue.

Why was Melrose fired Nov. 14 after 16 games?

Not enough wins, of course, but also a perception by ownership and management that players were not responding to Melrose's type of motivation, which included publicly calling players out after the second game of the season.

Another belief was the players were not working as a unit on the ice, and that practice and pregame preparation were lacking.

In a funny way, the original criticism of the hire — that the game passed Melrose as he spent 12 years as an ESPN analyst — might have been valid, but in a different paradigm.

Melrose is old-school. He played and previously coached in an era in which talent beat X's and O's, video was not the most important coaching tool, and motivation and energy triumphed over systems.

The game didn't change; the way it is processed did. And the feeling was Melrose — who coached from 1992-95 with the Kings, whom he led to the '93 Stanley Cup final — did not entirely keep up.

Melrose wasn't the X's and O's guy. That was left to associate coach Rick Tocchet and assistant Wes Walz. But the head coach sets the agenda, and if video work and on-ice repetition are not priorities, it does not matter how good a system a team plays.

Structure is king in today's game. It is no longer enough to throw the puck on the ice and say "My guys are better than yours." If that were the case, the Lightning would be tough to beat, considering its stellar goaltending and players such as Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis, Vinny Prospal, Ryan Malone, Radim Vrbata, Andrej Meszaros and Paul Ranger.

It is worth noting the team's core players — its engine, in other words — were brought up under John Tortorella's highly structured system, the idea that if this happens, you go here; if that happens, you go there. Playing as a unit is paramount. Freelancing against teams that play a structured game is suicide.

That is why this Nov. 14 quote from Tocchet, after he was named interim coach, is instructive: "For whatever reason we didn't battle as hard as we should have," he said, speaking not of Melrose, but generally, "and it looked like we didn't know what we were doing on the ice."

"This team, they need to know," Tocchet added the other day. "I've been on some teams where players don't need as much info. They get it. I'm not saying these guys don't get it; I just think these guys like to know as much info as possible. Maybe they're more a visual team than verbal. They have to see stuff, whether it's in video or practice."

About the culture of the locker room, Tocchet said he wants players together at least 20 minutes before warmups, talking about the game.

Melrose disputes his team lacked these kinds of structures.

"Total (nonsense)," he said. "We were one of the best defensive teams in the NHL. We gave up fewer goals in the first period. How do you do that if the team doesn't know what to do. That's their spin."

Melrose is right about the first period, and he has said he battled ownership and management over player ice time, which he wanted to use as a reward for better effort and results. But Tampa Bay still entered Saturday allowing a league-worst average 35.4 shots and with the fewest goals.

It is not difficult to see the differences under Tocchet. Practices are faster, and shorter. He is a big believer in repetition, especially on breakouts, so when the pressure is on, things are automatic. And the team has shown energy in games that was only intermittent under Melrose.

You can argue whether Melrose had enough time to implement his plan, or if he was dealt a bad hand by ownership, which probably shouldn't have hired him in the first place, and the players, who certainly have some responsibility for the disappointing on-ice product.

But in the end, even Melrose admitted: He was not a good fit.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

Analysis: Downfall of Barry Melrose with Tampa Bay Lightning tied to changes in how game is coached 11/22/08 [Last modified: Sunday, November 23, 2008 10:53pm]
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